Lockdown: Nursery staff fear for health as early year providers told to stay open while schools shut

Key workers being ‘made to feel their safety does not matter’, charity says

Colin Drury
Tuesday 05 January 2021 15:41 GMT
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Nursery workers are being “made to feel their safety does not matter”, a leading charity has warned after early years providers were told they should stay open during the third national coronavirus lockdown.

Staff are fearful for their health following the government’s ruling that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders should continue as normal despite all schools – including primaries – being largely shut in a bid to reduce the spread of Covid-19, the Early Years Alliance said.

The organisation has demanded to see scientific evidence explaining why the sector – which caters for more than 1.5 million children every day – is being treated differently to other places of education.

“Workers are understandably extremely anxious about the safety and wellbeing of themselves, their colleagues, their families and the children they look after,” chief executive Neil Leitch wrote in a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson.

“If the government is this concerned about the spread of the virus in primary schools, it must provide clear, scientific evidence for why the early years should be treated differently.

“If it cannot provide this vital reassurance, then it surely has no choice but…to close early years settings and provide financial support.”

The decision to throw England back into lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson on Monday night in a bid to stem growing pressures the deadly virus is exerting on the NHS.

In a television address, the prime minister said: “Because we now have to do everything we possibly can to stop the spread of the disease, primary schools, secondary schools and colleges across England must move to remote provision.”

But the decision to allow the country’s 70,000 early years providers to continue as normal – while a relief to some bosses, staff and parents – has caused widespread confusion and consternation.

Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said the new rules appeared to have been made “in a rush and without any consultation with PACEY or other early years stakeholders”.

In a statement, she added: “Unsurprisingly we are now awash with confused members, unsure whether it is right to remain open; whether they can support parents asking them to care for their school age children whilst the local school remains closed.

"Once again early years and childcare are just tacked onto the end of major school policy decisions with no real understanding of how families use these vital services."

Boris Johnson announces all schools to close in England

The National Day Nursery Association (NDNA) said the confusion had put “intolerable” pressure on an industry still reeling from the financial devastation of last spring’s lockdown.

In March, providers were ordered to shut along with schools but for a sector which relies heavily on parental fees, the sudden loss of income was devastating: some 58 per cent of local authorities believe nurseries in their areas will close in 2021 as a result of the difficulties, according to research by the Coram Family and Childcare charity.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the NDNA, said that, to prevent such a scenario unfolding, the government should now prioritise vaccinations for early years staff, as well as providing greater financial support.

She told The Independent: “For months we have been calling for better access to testing for early years staff, and with schools now closed, these settings have to be a priority.

“We all know it’s impossible to distance from toddlers and babies who need close care and contact. Therefore early years staff must also be a priority for the vaccine to enable them to continue on the frontline providing support for families.”

She added: “With so many settings worried about the financial impact of higher running costs and reduced income more targeted support needs to be made available to prevent wide-scale closures.”

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